We got new evidence, mostly from the state of Virginia, why this year’s NCAA tournament is such a challenge.
The primary exhibit came from VCU as the Rams had to depart the field after multiple positive tests within the program. It wasn’t clear if that meant coaches or players but from the tournament perspective it doesn't really matter. They’re done.
Then Virginia tried to come off of quarantine, travel to Indiana Friday night and play a tough Ohio team in Bloomington Saturday.
We’re not sure where the plane landed - most likely Indianapolis - but it was asking an awful lot from a team that couldn't really spend time together after the ACC Tournament ended early even if they didn’t have to drive the extra hour or so to IU.
Virginia’s system comes across as slow, which it is, but it’s also built on precision. That went out the window with quarantine. They did fight back towards the end but it was just asking a lot.
And of course that doesn’t demean Ohio. Those guys played hard and very well and deserve respect. They’re unquestionably winners. We’re not saying Virginia would have run away from Ohio. Ohio is legitimately good. But Virginia ran out of gas, so we’ll never know for sure.
And similarly, Oregon will essentially get fresh legs and a bye to Monday - and time to more closely study Iowa.
It’s not their fault they got a break but clearly, they got a break. Is it fair? No. Can anyone do anything about it?
No, of course not.
This is life in a pandemic. We’re fortunate to have any basketball at all this March.
In the other games, in the West, Gonzaga smacked Norfolk State, as expected, 98-55, Oklahoma got by Mizzou 72-68, UCSB missed a chippy to beat Alex O’Connell’s Creighton team, falling by a single point 63-62 (O’Connell played just three minutes), USC sent Drake back home 72-56, Kansas got a tougher game than expected from Eastern Washington, winning 93-84 and Iowa knocked off Grand Canyon 86-74.
In the East, Michigan took care of Texas Southern 82-66, LSU had little trouble with St. Bonaventure winning 76-61, Colorado dismissed Georgetown 96-73, Florida State got by UNC-G 64-54 (hey, Indiana, Wes is the Miller you really want), UCLA lives to fight again, beating BYU 73-62 and Maryland managed UConn 63-54.
Rick Pitino reinforced two themes Saturday. The first is that, when you put everything aside and just look at basketball, the guy is a tremendous, unbelievable coach. Iona gave Bama fits and this after having serious Covid issues for much of the season.
Keep in mind that aside from Covid, Pitino is just in his first year at Iona and the team plays in the MAAC. We’d go so far as to say this: if Pitino could have had a normal season and his players were in the supreme condition his teams usually are, they would have beaten Alabama. In the end, like Virginia, the Gaels just ran out of gas.
After the game Pitino said this: “I want to take a smaller school, like a Providence, like an Iona, a small school and try to make it big. But I wanted no part of any of that other, I had enough of that. It turned me off, to be quite honest with you, in a lot of different areas. I now don’t have to look over my shoulder and see who I’m going to trust, who I’m not going to trust. I’m in heaven right now, and where I need to be.”
We’ll see he what happens if IU calls, but he sounds like he means it.
But the best game, the most compelling, was the nightcap as Abilene Christian, out of the Southland, beat Texas.
Abilene shot just 29.9 percent overall and hit just 3-18 for three pointers. But they forced 23 turnovers on the Longhorns and grabbed 18 offensive boards to UT’s five. This despite having just one player over 6-8. Texas had a massive size advantage over Abilene which just goes to show that Moses Malone and Charles Barkley were right: rebounding is about heart and desire.
In a cruel twist of fate, Andrew Jones, who memorably beat leukemia, returning for an outstanding career with Texas, hit a three with 16 seconds remaining to put the Longhorns up 52-51 and this after hitting a pair of free throws to account for UT’s last five points. But Arlington’s Joe Pleasant was fouled on a putback with 0:02 left.
Pleasants, the TV crew informed us, shoots 59 percent from the line.
Nailed ‘em both - then stole the long inbounds pass to boot.
It was, and we don’t say this lightly, a spectacular, spine-tingling upset.
It also probably means that Indiana won't be pursuing Smart because the logic of not keeping Archie Miller was that he couldn't get in the post-season, much less win big games. We’d love to see the AD try and sell Smart after this loss. He’d be the next one to get fired.
And looking ahead a bit, Abilene has a shot at making a run. Think they couldn’t beat UCLA? The team we saw Saturday could. And after that? Who knows.
Sunday’s games are interesting.
#8 Loyola gets a rare crack at #1 Illinois. Trivia - who has more national titles between these two? Loyola! They won it in 1963, Duke’s first ever trip to the Final Four.
#9 Wisconsin will get #1 Baylor which is a fun matchup. The Badgers have to deal with some great defense from the Baylor perimeter while Baylor has to deal with Wisconsin’s size advantage.
#11 Syracuse and #3 West Virginia square off with two very different defensive identities as the Mountaineers try to shut down red hot Buddy Boeheim.
#6 Texas Tech has major tournament experience lately while #3 Arkansas has much less.
#10 Rutgers gets #2 Houston while #15 Oral Roberts tries to keep the magic going against the #7 Florida Gators.
In the final two games, #13 North Texas bellies up to #5 Villanova and #12 Oregon State guns for the glass slipper against Cade Cunningham and #4 Oklahoma State.
Common sense says take Illinois but we say the hell with common sense. Loyola is a sharp team. Let’s roll the dice.
We’ll stick with Baylor and hope they’ve fully recovered from their own Covid woes.
Syracuse is going to get a bruising from West Virginia. Given Boeheim’s thin build and the positive frailty of Marek Dolezaj, it won't be easy. But West Virginia will have fits with the 2-3 as well. We’ll stay loyal here and take the ACC team.
We like Texas Tech to make a very deep run so we’ll stick with the Red Raiders against Arkansas.
Can’t see Rutgers beating Houston so Cougars to the Sweet Sixteen!
Can ORU keep it going against Florida? Why not? Florida is good but not great. We say Oral Roberts and we hope Omar Payne has to sit this one out too.
Villanova is on borrowed time due to injury issues and North Texas is a very confident team. Won’t be easy though. We’ll take ‘Nova here.
The best hashtag we’ve seen? #TinkleinHinkle, referring to Oregon State’s coach Wayne Tinkle and OSU playing in Hinkle Field House. We can’t see the Beavers going deeper so we’ll take the OSU of the plains in this one.